An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it........... Constant development is the law of life, and a man who always tries to maintain his dogmas in order to appear consistent drives himself into a false position........... First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. - Mahatma Gandhi



2. Caste and the Hindutva Movement

The RSS is the ideological fountainhead of the Hindutva movement. Along with the other organizations that constitute the Sangh Parivar (family of RSS organizations) -- the VHP, BJP, Bajrang Dal and Sewa Vibhag among others -- the RSS has done the necessary work of propagating this sectarian ideology for the last seventy-five years.

Historically, the RSS has been open primarily to Hindu upper caste men with some growth in the ranks of intermediate or “backward castes” and Dalits in recent times.109 Its leadership has been exclusively upper caste (dwija110), primarily Brahmin. The sole non-Brahmin among Sarsanghchalaks (Supreme Leaders), Prof. Rajendra Singh, was still from the upper castes.  So, while it is possible to immediately detect a “caste bias” in the RSS, both historically and by way of contemporary demographics, the issue has in the recent past become far more complex for interesting reasons. For one, the BJP and VHP, the electoral and political fronts of the Sangh, have in the last decade, encouraged the emergence of an array of backward caste/dalit leadership; Sadhavi Ritambara, Uma Bharati, Bangaru Laxman, and Narendra Modi, to name the best known.

The emergence of a strident and visible “backward caste” leadership in the BJP is often taken as evidence of fundamental change in the parivar’s relation to caste. It is not uncommon now to hear RSS supporters say that the Sangh can no longer be called a Brahmin-Baniya party111 and that it has successfully overcome its historical legacy.  Thus any effort to explicate the relationship between Hindutva and upper caste privilege must necessarily contend with two clear areas of inquiry – the historical articulation of casteist ideology within the Sangh (1925-1980), and a seemingly new approach to caste within the Sangh (1980s – present).

The Sangh and Caste – 1925-1980

The Membership and Leadership: The RSS was started as an organization for all Hindu men and continues to remain, in formal terms, open to all castes. However, from its very inception it was very clear that the RSS was primarily an upper-caste organization with no serious intent to share power with lower castes.  As Kancha Ilaiah, a leading scholar of caste explains:

When the RSS began working out militant strategies, initially Brahmin youth were mobilised… [However, w]hen the ideological congruence between the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS began to take place in the face of the contentious Partition question, the RSS began to transform itself into a mass militant organisation. To take up rioting campaigns and to defend its cadre from Muslim attacks it needed a large number of strong youth. At that stage it had to go beyond the "dwija" social base and recruit Sudra/OBCs and Dalit youth.112

Such an expansion of its social base to include (other) Backward Castes and Dalits did not however mean that the Brahmanical elite was seeking to share power with the backward castes/dalits. Again, as Ilaiah points out:

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was the brainchild of Savarkar and Golwalkar, two Maharashtrian Brahmin ideologues. When it began to aspire for political power, it was headed by Deen Dayal Upadhyay, a Bengali Brahmin. Now, several branches of the RSS such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal have come up. The parent organisation and its branches were quite consciously controlled by Brahmin leaders/intellectuals.

The recruitment of “OBCs and Dalits” did not translate to leadership within the RSS. Numerous journalists and scholars of caste have commented on the use of lower caste and Dalit youth primarily as cannon fodder in riot situations. Further, there are far more subtle ways in which this hierarchy plays out. For instance, in the RSS the two positions of pracharak (disseminator of thought/ideology) and vicharak (thinker/intellectual) are clearly earmarked. A Dalit person can be a pracharak but would almost never be a vicharak.

The Roots of an Ideology: Such an institutional analysis of the RSS helps us locate the core ideology of this foundational organization. The problem however is that in its officially stated position the RSS claims to be inclusive of all castes.  But such an official position breaks down consistently and the real basis of the core ideology and its fundamental rootedness in the worst casteist thinking is exposed again and again. For instance, the second Sarsanghchalak, M. S. Golwalkar, writing in the second decade after the formation of the RSS, describes Manu, the author of Manusmriti, the Vedic book of law, as the:

first and greatest lawgiver of the world [who] lays down in his code, directing all the peoples of the world to go to Hindusthan [sic] to learn their duties at the holy feet of 'eldest born' Brahmins of this land. (Golwalkar,1939, pp.55-56).

The Manusmriti itself is indeed an ancient Hindu law text, however one with a very dubious distinction. For instance, a random selection of the ‘wisdom’ found in the Manusmriti on caste is as follows:

Serving Brahmins alone is recommended as the best innate activity of a Shudra; for whatever he does other than this bears no fruit for him (123, Chapter X).

They should give him (Shudra) the leftovers of their food, their old clothes, the spoiled parts of their grain, and their worn-out household utensils" (125, Chapter X).

A servant (Shudra) should not amass wealth, even if he has the ability, for a servant (Shudra) who has amassed wealth annoys priests" (129, Chapter X).113

If there is a “Hindu text” that can be seen as codifying the worst and most oppressive of caste and gender practices, it is the Manusmriti. Not surprisingly, even as Golwalkar was writing his recommendation for the application of Manusmriti, political thinkers and early Dalit leaders like Dr. Ambedkar were articulating a full and detailed critique of the Manusmriti.114 In fact, Ambedkar who later on became the chief architect of the Indian constitution, publicly burned the Manusmriti on December 25, 1927 as a symbolic break with the old oppressive brahmanical order. This date is now celebrated by many Dalit women as Indian Women’s Liberation day since the Mansriti is as patriarchal as it is casteist.115 Thus by the late 1940’s an extremely articulate critique of caste was in place and the RSS’s lament for the loss of the Manusmriti on the eve of the adoption of a new and secular constitution for a free India must be understood as well informed and deliberate. The RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, mourns the loss of Manusmriti within the new constitution, describing the Manusmriti as a “unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat” it goes on to say:

To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.

Post-1980s Hindutva: A New Approach to Caste?

Against this backdrop of an ideology that is central to Hindutva, how does one analyze and understand the recent incorporation of lower caste and Dalit leadership into the BJP/VHP?

The Hindutva movement had receded considerably in the immediate post-independence period and only began to re-emerge in the 1980s.  Over the several intervening decades, the Congress had consolidated the OBC and Dalit votes in significant part, especially in North India.  The decade of the 1980s saw for the first time a fragmentation of this vote base of the Congress in Northern India as various regional forces coalesced under the umbrella of the “Third Front.” Backward caste leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, and Kanshi Ram had begun to articulate a strident lower caste politics through their own specific parties. The castes that had been kept out of power for so long were abandoning the Congress and knocking on the doors of New Delhi through new regional formations.

One of the most crisis ridden phases in recent Indian politics was the period between 1988 and 1993 when two huge events rocked the country – the release and agitation around the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, and the Sangh Parivar’s successful drive to destroy the Babri Masjid.  One way of reading that tumultuous phase of Indian politics is to understand the release by the Third front government of the Mandal Commission report which recommended a significant increase in “reservations” (positive discrimination quotas) for backward castes to meet the aspirational goals set by the founders of the Nation. For the BJP, there were two significant truths they had to deal with. The first was that, it could never hope to rise to power with its existing social base of Brahmins and Baniyas. If it desired to hold office in Delhi, the only way it saw was to take from the Congress some of the backward caste/dalit vote, and therefore stop that vote from consolidating under the regional parties/Third Front banner. However, at the same time, it could not afford to alienate its existing base – the Brahmin/Bania backbone of the movement. Hence the Sangh launched two mobilizations almost simultaneously. On the one hand it started the anti-Mandal agitation reflecting its true ideology and its existing social base. Upper caste youth all across India were mobilized to take a stand. Young upper caste men and women burnt themselves on the streets of Delhi. The Sangh’s message was out – it was the only political force that protected upper caste interests. At the same time the Sangh started the Babri Masjid agitation. Here the image was of a “weak” Hindu who had been oppressed by the “invading” Muslim and it was Hindu society’s disunity that allowed these “external others” to subjugate it.  The political call was for “hindu unity” – all castes and sects – under the banner of Hindutva.  Advani’s rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, with the “garv se kaho ki hum Hindu hai” (say with pride that we are Hindus) slogan, sought to symbolically obliterate all hierarchies within Hindu society and position it as a unified community against the Muslim “other.”  If such a consolidation of a lower caste vote under the rubric of Hindutva was to be successful, it needed to deploy leaders from such communities who had mass appeal. It is therefore, in the context of the anti-Mandal/Babri Masjid agitations that leaders such as Sadhvi Ritambara, Uma Bharati, Kalyan Singh and Narendra Modi emerge. Kancha Iliah summarizes this argument succinctly:

In the context of Mandal social reform, the BJP worked out the Mandir agenda for which it needed a lot of muscle power. This was required for two purposes: to mobilise Sudra/OBC social forces as vote mobilisers and to intensify the rioting campaigns against the Muslims.

The question then is whether this emergent backward caste leadership within the BJP – one part of the Sangh combine – signify a real change in Sangh politics. Such a change, would necessarily be indicated through a change in the RSS practices on the ground.

When one looks at the RSS, its support for the maintenance of caste hierarchy is not something that happened in the past – in the formative years of the RSS or during the tumultuous years surrounding India’s independence from British colonial rule. Even looking at just the last two decades, while the Hindutva movement was rapidly expanding its social base, the Brahminic core of the movement still comes through clearly.

Through the decade of the 1990s, the Hindutva movement has consistently been critical of the Constitution of India with a demand that it be replaced by a “Hindu constitution.” The RSS mouthpiece Organiser (May 10, 1992) reports on a VHP conference as follows:

The 2nd state Hindu Advocates Conference organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad at Madurai on April 18 and 19, 1992, has demanded the review and redrafting of the Constitution. Shri V.K.S. Chaudhary, Advocate General of U.P. in his key-note address asserted that the Manusmriti rendered `justice for all'. Manu took the entire mankind and its needs for ages and evolved his code. Manusmriti was for all times and ages and for all mankind".

Nothing indeed has changed as the Manusmriti, like in the 1930s and 40s continues to be its guiding text. So also, Giriraj Kishore, currently the senior vice-president of the VHP responded to the inclusion of the question of caste discrimination at the Durban Race and Reparations conference as follows:

[The] UN has no business to consider caste discrimination as form of human rights violation… [Caste denotes] what profession man has adopted [and is part of] "ancient customs and system [which] "should not be and cannot be abolished by any court.116

Such defense of caste privilege and the desire to keep in place an oppressive system has been a hallmark of the Hindutva movement and its consistent and untiring reappearance in Sangh discourse is a deep reflection of the complete absence of any social reform agenda within it. Nowhere has this come through more clearly than the October 2002 lynching of five dalits by VHP activists in Jhajjar, Haryana. The Sangh Parivar thugs claimed that the Dalits had killed and skinned a cow.  Completely aside from the fact that nothing can ever justify such a brutal act, the defense offered by senior Sangh functionaries is telling.117 On the day after the lynching, October 16th, the local VHP/BD took out a victory procession and Acharya Giriraj Kishore, senior vice president of the VHP defended the action by quoting Hindu scriptures. Local VHP office bearers were more forthright. Ramesh Saini was clear that the Dalits deserved to die. He said, “I will say it in front of the police that what they were doing was wrong and they deserve to be punished…”118 Another local official, Yashpal Gandhi went further: “Ravanas found slaughtering cows had been punished" and those who acted against them “should be honoured.”119

Thus, while the RSS may have expanded its social base with the inclusion of members of the lower castes and Dalits as foot soldiers, and by elevating a select few to second-tier leadership positions in the BJP and VHP, its ideological architecture is marked by a unique inflexibility. For all its claims of inclusiveness it has failed to make any kind of social reform part of its agenda. As a matter of fact, it has consistently militated against the forces of social reform. As Dalits and other progressive forces built critiques of and challenged the Manusmriti, the Sangh has consistently defended it. When efforts to fulfill in some small measure the long-delayed promise of equality and opportunity were set into motion through the Mandal commission, the Sangh produced a violent and melodramatic counter mobilization. When the core fault line of Hindu society was to be taken up at an international forum such as the UN, the Sangh not just fought the effort but defended caste as a “human right.”120

We have analyzed the unchanging face of the Hindutva movement across two moments in recent Indian history – between 1930 and 1950 and from 1980 to the present. The reason for picking these two moments are because these are also the moments of its most rapid growth. One way of reading these two moments is to understand them also as the two moments in modern Indian history where the lower castes and Dalits have mobilized most significantly to overthrow caste oppression. In the 1930-50 phase it was Ambedkar and the Republican party building on the work of the Satyashodak movement of Maharashtra.121 In the post-80s phase it was the emergence of powerful OBC and Dalit formations which threatened to storm Delhi. In the first phase the center of the anti-caste movement was Maharashtra and the Hindutva movement was conceived and put into motion by the Maharashtrian Brahmin elite.  In the second phase, the forces of anti-caste mobilization have been more varied and Hindutva’s response has been equally dispersed, playing out opportunistic vote bank politics with different alliances in different regions. What unites these moments of growth is that empty call to Hindu unity and the invention of a common enemy in the Muslim at precisely the moment when the caste hierarchy comes under severe threat. The preservation of one fascist ideology – Brahminism – has necessitated for the Hindutva movement the invention of another – communalism.

In the long term then, the RSS will either have to change its ideological position on caste to include, at the minimum, an active social reform agenda, or continue to play an opportunistic politics of caste mobilization. The former seems entirely unlikely because that would mean the loss of the raison d’etre of Hinduness and leave it without a core ideology. The latter is often something that works for a while and cannot produce long term and sustainable growth as a political force. Caste then maybe could be, in Ilaiah’s words, “the Waterloo” for the Hindutva movement.

Next: Sangh and Women



[109] Throughout this note we use the term “backward caste” to denote those caste/jati groups that would be considered sudra in the four fold varna system. This term is used primarily because of its currency; the Indian constitution and various State laws define the category as “Other Backward Classes (OBC)” although this is s a list of castes. The term Dalit is used to refer to the so called “untouchables” who fall outside the caste system itself. The term literally means “oppressed people” and is the term of choice among Dalits.

[110] The notion of upper caste generally corresponds to the category of dwija or twice born castes: brahmins, kshatriyas and vaishyas.

[111] The idea of the RSS/BJP being a Brahmin-Baniya party refers to the historical social base of the Hindutva combine (See next section in this note). Brahmin is the upper most caste in the four fold varna system. The Baniya would approximately map on to the “Vaishya” category of the four fold varna system.

[113] All these quotations are from Doniger and Smith, 1991

[114] Amedkar’s critique of Manusmriti is structured around the idea that the core ideology of “Hindu society” is Brahminism. Brahminism is the structuration of society into a hierarchy –a “graded inequality” - ordered along lines of pollution and purity, substantiated through myth. In other words, as any ideology it is not attached to the body – that is not all Brahmins follow Brahminism and backward castes are not necessarily free of Brahminism. This is, according to Ambedkar, “the soul of chaturvarna.” In a nutshell it reflects an ideology that orders humankind into a hierarchy that is divinely granted and any individual or group that works from within a paradigm of “graded inequality” -- as him/herself inferior to some but also locating others as “inferior” to him/her/them are operating within this ideological framework. For Amedkar, the first and most important challenge to Brahminism came by way of Buddhism and Jainism and it is his position that Buddhism managed to strike terror in the hearts of the Brahminical order for a good part of four centuries (from around 2 BC to 2 AD) and was finally wiped out of India by Brahminic revivalism through the institution of the Adi Sankaracharya on the one hand and the Gupta empire of the 4th century AD. This tension is visible in interesting ways when we look at Hindutva texts. For one, standard upper caste renditions of Hinduism attempt to include Buddha as one of the ten avatars of Vishnu and the Gupta period in Indian history is for the Hindutva combine a defining moment for the sub continent and is constantly referred to as the Golden Age of the Guptas, while many Dalit texts refer to the same period as the Dark Age because it was the moment when Buddhism was wiped out of India.

[115] (archive)

[116] Caste-based discrimination stokes up controversy, Times of India, Jun 9, 2001 ( (archive)

[117] This incident is in many ways truly indicative of how seriously  caste is a factor in Indian social life as also how deeply Hindutva has penetrated the State apparatus. The State machinery was not only unable too protect the five Dalit workers from the VHP mob, it failed it to apprehend the culprits, institute an immediate inquiry and did not extend the most basic of courtesies to the families of those murdered. Instead, the administration conducted a post-mortem on the cow and determined it was already dead by the time the Dalts could have got a hold of it.  Not only is the whole idea of forensically examining dead cattle and ignoring dead people disgusting and bizarre, what is worse is that such an act carries with it the implication that the murders of the Dalits would be justified if it turned out that they had killed the cow.

[118] 5 Dalits lynched in Haryana, entire administration watches,Indian Express,Oct 17, 2002.

[119] Slaughter of the Dalits, TK Rajalakshmi, Frontline, Volume 19 (23), Nov 09-22, 2002 (archive)

[120] See footnote #116.

[121] The Other Mahatma, Gail Omvedt (archive)





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